Aesthetic Realism is a cult

  Who they are, how they operate • Written by former members

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Five reasons you can't trust an Aesthetic Realist

by Michael Bluejay
February 2010 • Updated April 2011

Aesthetic Realists say their critics are liars. In fact they have a whole website called Countering the Lies. (Hypocritically, that site contains their own mistruths.) But here's a laundry list of reasons why it's hard to trust what an Aesthetic Realist says about their organization.

1. They're out of their friggin' minds.

Don't take my word for it, listen to what they have to say themselves. (Emphasis added.)
"Eli Siegel [AR's founder] was the greatest man in the history of the world." (from their NY Times ad, and their Spring 2008 presentation at a NYC library) ▶ Play the audio

"When we see how much [Siegel] was able to do without recognition or acclaim, imagine what he might have done if he had had them! He thought, for example, if he had been able to work with doctors, he could have found the cause of cancer." (introduction to AR's Self ond World book, p. xi)

"I believe Self and World is the greatest book ever to have been written. If you think I'm saying greater than the Bible or Shakespeare -- yes, I am." (from the intro to that book)

"In keeping Aesthetic Realism—in all its grandeur, all its kindness—from you, the American press has committed a crime against humanity as much as if it deliberately kept from starving people the news that the food they needed was available for them." (from their NY Times ad)

"I accuse the American press of preferring the continuing pain of children and even death to being honest about Aesthetic Realism." (Robert Murphy on AR's website)

"It sounds strange, in a way, but I think I love the opposites of Sameness and Difference as much as I love any person." (from their 1971 book about their cure for homosexuality, p. ix)

"Homosexuality, in simple terms, is bad aesthetics." (their 1971 book about their cure for homosexuality, p. x)

 And here's how an arts writer for The Virginian-Pilot described her encounter with an Aesthetic Realist:

"A woman with a curious button on her chest sat down beside us. Her button read: 'Victim of the Press.'  She looked safe enough to ask questions. Some ruse. As she spoke of her cause, she began to emerge as, well, deranged."


2. They lie their faces off.

Aesthetic Realists claim they never promoted a cure for being gay. But they did, and it's well-documented.

They also say that while people did change from being gay by studying AR, they never said people should change. But quotes like these suggest otherwise:

"We say what history will say: the American press has blood on its hands, has caused misery and death, because for years it has withheld the news that men and women have changed from homosexuality through study of Aesthetic Realism." (from their NY Times ad)

An entire chapter of AR's 1986 book on their gay cure is devoted to the idea of homosexuality being wrong. On its very first page it says, "Eli Siegel stated the main reason homosexuality is not ethical, and [he] related homosexuality to all other ways that a man has been against the outside world. He explained, 'There is only one thing that is immoral in the world: liking oneself too much and the outside world too little'....".

As for AR's claim that they don't see homosexuality as a mental illness, this one is easy: Their founder, Eli Siegel, wrote, "All homosexuality arises from contempt of the world, not liking it sufficiently." AR also believes that "contempt causes insanity". (It was the title of the preface to their founder's book Self and World (which is basically their Bible), and they've used it as a headline of their monthly newsletter.) So if homosexuality is a form of contempt, and contempt causes insanity...you do the math. It's painfully obvious how AR views gay people.

AR people say that Eli Siegel didn't kill himself. But he did, and we know this because enough former members have come forward and spilled the beans. (And also because with the spotlight that this website has shone on the AR people about this, they've finally begrudgingly alluded to Siegel's suicide.)

AR folks claim they've never been secretive about how Siegel died:

A final misrepresentation I want to refute here is the manner in which those attempting to discredit Eli Siegel have portrayed his death.... The events that led to his dying have long been knowledge in the public realm, because Ellen Reiss has described them, often in detail, in the journal The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known at least once every year since 1987! (AR website)

No, she hasn't. No such writing exists. I challenged them years ago to provide this alleged admission of Siegel's suicide from the AR journal, but they can't, because they've never owned up to it.

A favorite falsehood the AR people like to tell is that I was only 2 or 3 years old when I was involved with Aesthetic Realism. In fact, my involvement didn't end completely until around high school. The picture at right shows me at age 12, dutifully wearing my AR "Victim of the Press" button. That same summer I also attended multiple presentations and classes at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, and had the dreaded AR "consultations".

For more, see Lies Aesthetic Realists tell.

 

3. They obfuscate and distort.

Do you wonder how AR can claim they didn't have a gay cure when they published two books, produced one film, took out several ads in major newspapers, and held hundreds of counseling sessions on the subject? Simple: They never used the word "cure". A cure is exactly what they described, and it's a word used by others who have written about their efforts (including the New York Times and SoHo News Weekly), but the AR people tiptoed around that word themselves. So they're claiming "We never said we had a cure for homosexuality!" simply because they never used the word cure itself. Incredible.

They do this with everything. They "refute" a former member's charge that members don't get to take vacations by giving examples of recent vacations -- without mentioning that vacations were allowed only recently and only specifically so they could claim that they'd taken some. Ditto with being in contact with family members. It's a relatively new phenomenon, but they don't mention that bit. Or they talk about the people at the lower levels in the organization, who don't face as severe restrictions as those higher up -- only they don't tell you that that's what they're talking about. In everything they say on Countering the Lies, there's something significant they're leaving out.

 

4. Most of them eventually recant what they're saying.

Most people who have ever been Aesthetic Realism members have eventually snapped out of it and left. So it's really kind of hard to take what the current members say seriously, when over the years countless others who said the exact same kinds of things, and with just as much fervor, later left the group and recanted their statements. When so many former members say they were wrong, why should we believe what the current members are saying?

 

5. They won't stand behind what they say.

I saved the best for last: I've had an open offer to debate the Aesthetic Realists, any time, anywhere, but they won't even acknowledge that offer, much less accept it. Between them and me, I'm the only one willing to stand behind what he says. The AR people want to safely hide behind the cover of the Internet without having their distortions held up to public scrutiny. They won't defend their words publicly.

And when the Aesthetic Realists won't stand behind what they say, why should anyone take what they have to say seriously?

What's on this site

Cult Aspects

What is Aesthetic Realism?
An explanation about both the AR philosophy and the group that promotes it.

Cult aspects of Aesthetic Realism
Fanatical devotion to the leader, cutting off relations with families who aren't also believers -- it's all here.

AR and Homosexuality
The AR group used to try to "cure" people of being gay. They stopped that in 1990 because high-profile success cases kept deciding they were gay after all and leaving. AR has never said their gay-changing attempts were wrong.

AR's founder killed himself
AR's founder Eli Siegel killed himself, but the AR people have been trying to hide that fact. They can't hide any more, since enough former students have come forward to confirm the truth.

Attempts to recruit schoolchildren
Some AR members are public schoolteachers, and yep, they do try to recruit in the classroom.

How cults recruit new members.
Explains how a rational person can unwittingly get sucked into a cult group.

Mind control tricks
This article explains AR's use of Directed Origination, a classic tool for brainwashing. Also see the article where someone infiltrated the group to learn about their mind control methods.

Five reasons you can't trust an Aesthetic Realist
One reason is that most people who were in AR eventually woke up and got out. See more about this, plus four other reasons.

Lies Aesthetic Realists tell
They say they never saw homosexuality as something to cure. They say the leader didn't kill himself. They say my family left the group when I was an infant. These and more are debunked here.

Hypocrisy of the Aesthetic Realists
It takes some serious brainwashing for the members to not realize that they're guilty of what they accuse others of.

Aesthetic Realism glossary
We explain the real meanings behind the loaded language that AR people use.

AR in their own words

Actual AR advertisment
The AR people spent a third of a million dollars for a double-page ad in the NY Times to tell the world that the press' refusal to cover AR is just as wrong as letting hungry people starve to death.

Ad for the gay cure
AR bought huge ads in major newspapers to trumpet their ability to "fix" gays.

Actual letters from AR people
When a theater critic casually dissed Aesthetic Realism in New York magazine, the AR people responded with hundreds of angry letters, calling the article "a crime against humanity".

Actual internal meeting
The AR people blunderingly made a tape recording of a secret meeting they had, where they lambasted a member who had supposedly been "cured" of his gayness, but then found to still be cruising for gay sex. Their screeching hostility towards him is matched only by their fear that the secret will get out.

Actual AR consultation
For the first time the public can see what really happens in an Aesthetic Realism "consultation" (thanks to a former member sharing his tape with us). In the session the AR counselors tried to help the member not be gay, explaining that the path to ex-gayness was to express deep gratitude to AR and its founder.

Actual AR lesson
I had a lesson with the cult leader, Eli Siegel, when I was two years old, which, like everything else, they made a tape of. The highlight is Siegel taunting me with "Cry some more, Michael, cry some more!"

Ad in the Village Voice from 1962
The AR folks try to deny that they're a cult in this ancient ad -- showing that people were calling them a cult as far back as 1962!

AR responds to this website
The AR people have tried to rebut this website with their own site called Countering the Lies, whose title ought to win some kind of award for irony. Here we explain the story behind that site.

What former members say

Aesthetic Realism exposed
The ultimate statement by a former member, who was involved for well over a decade.

A tale of getting sucked in.
This former member describes exactly how he initially got drawn in, and how he then kept getting more and more involved.

Growing up in a cult. An ex-member who was born into AR tells what it was like growing up in the group, and how she got out.

Aesthetic Realism ruined his marriage. "I consider my 'study' of Aesthetic Realism to be one of the factors that led to the eventual breakup of my marriage, to my eternal sorrow."

On having all the answers. A former member explains how AR members think they have all the answers, and feel qualified to lecture others about how they should view personal tragedy.

Kicked out for remaining gay. Former students describe how they were kicked out of AR because they couldn't change from homosexuality. Ron Schmidt and Miss Brown.

"Leaving, however was only the first challenge.". One of the original teachers of Aesthetic Realism explains the cultic environment inside the group, and how she got out.

"If I disappointed them, then I now consider that a badge of honor." A former member tells how AR try to change him from being gay, and convinced him not to spend Christmas with his family.

"...people were controlled and humiliated if they stepped out of line...". The experiences shared with us by a member from 1974-80, now a Fortune 100 executive.

"I want Ellen Reiss questioned!" This former member wonders why there hasn't been a class-action lawsuit against the foundation yet.

They took his consultation tape. Describes how the AR people kept his consultation tape with his most intimate thoughts on it, and told him he couldn't study any more unless he incorporated AR more radically into his life.

"There isn't any question: Eli Siegel killed himself."
A former member who had sought AR's "gay cure" explains how the group's leaders admitted that the founder took his own life.

Confirms all the criticism. A former member from 1971-80, confirms that AR students don't see their families, are discouraged from attending college, and shun other members. He also offers that he was mistaken when he was involved about thinking that AR had changed him from homosexuality.

Michael Bluejay's description. Your webmaster describes his own family's involvement.

Members interviewed in Jewish Times. This lengthy article in Jewish Times quotes former students of Aesthetic Realism extensively.

NY Post article. A series of articles in the NY Post quotes many former members who are now critical of the group.

Aesthetic Realism debunked. A former student explains the cult aspects of AR. Posted on Steve Hassan's Freedom of Mind website.

Other Goodies

Thinking of leaving AR?
If you're thinking of leaving the group, you're not alone. Let's face it: Most people who have ever studied AR have left -- and not come back. There's got to be a reason for that. Curious about what they figured out? Worried about the fallout if you do decide to leave? Here's everything you need to know.

Recovering from your AR experience.
People who leave cults often need special therapy to cope with what they went through. Whether you decide to seek counseling or choose to go it alone, here's what you need to know.

Media Reports
NY Mag called AR "a cult of messianic nothingness" and Harper's referred to them as "the Moonies of poetry". We've got reprints of articles, plus some help for journalists researching AR. (And here are shortcuts to the landmark articles in New York Native, the NY Post and Jewish Times.)

Site News / Blog
Here's some news and commentary that I add from time to time.

Share your Aesthetic Realism story!

If you did time in AR, had or have a friend or relative in AR, or had some other run-in with the group, I hope you'll share your story on this site. If you'd like to write something that you don't want to appear on this site, then please write directly to my email address instead.

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Your experience:

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Okay to identify your gender? (e.g., "his story", "her story")

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Aesthetic Realism at a Glance

Name

The Aesthetic Realism Foundation

Founded

1941

Founder

Eli Siegel, poet and art/literary critic.
Committed suicide in 1978

Purpose

To get the world to realize that Eli Siegel was the greatest person who ever lived, and that Aesthetic Realism is the most important knowledge, ever.


Philosophy

The key to all social ills is for people to learn to like the world. Having contempt for the world leads to unhappiness and even insanity. (Their slogan is "Contempt causes insanity".) For example, homosexuality is a form of insanity caused by not liking the world sufficiently.

Also teaches that "beauty is the making one of opposites".

Location

New York City (SoHo)


Membership

About 106 (33 teachers, 44 training to be teachers, and 29 regular students). Has failed to grow appreciably even after 70 years of existence, and is currently shrinking.

All members call themselves "students", even the leaders/teachers. Advanced members who teach others are called "consultants".

Method of study

Public seminars/lectures at their headquarters (in lower Manhattan), group classes, and individual consultations (three consultants vs. one student).


Cult aspects

  • Fanatical devotion to their leader/founder
  • Belief that they have the one true answer to universal happiness
  • Ultimate purpose is to recruit new members
  • Feeling that they are being persecuted
  • Wild, paranoid reactions to criticism
  • Non-communication (or at least very limited communication) with those who have left the group
  • Odd, specialized language.

  • More about cult aspects...


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Photo of Eli Siegel's gravestone from Find A Grave